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July 12, 2005
View audio file details: Interview with Owen Maseko;
Maseko - Biography
by Taurai Maduna
attained independence in 1980. But what does 25 years of independence
mean to the ordinary Zimbabwean? Does it mean standing in a long
queue waiting for a bag of sugar or questioning what has led a black
man to oppress his fellow comrades?
These are just a few of the thought provoking questions scrawled
on the walls of a grimy public toilet in a public art installation
at the just ended Khululeka Exhibition in Bulawayo. Artists and
painters at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo were encouraged
to present various interpretations of their understanding of Freedom
a Ndebele word meaning "to be free".
On the opening
night of the exhibition, Addelis Sibutha, Regional Director of the
gallery described the exhibition as one that would compel Zimbabweans
to talk about the economic, social and political issues they face
in their everyday lives.
The work of
Owen Maseko a 30-year-old Zimbabwean artist attracted much attention.
Owen chose to depict filthy, public toilets as the only place in
Zimbabwe where, in his view, freedom of expression was possible.
One might ask
why the toilet has become the only place were one can liberate the
Maseko says toilets are the only democratic place left where members
of the public can say exactly whatthey want to say without fear
of retribution. His work includes graffiti with one message asking
why "white people do not queue for sugar?" Maseko says
some white members of the public who saw his work ended up donating
sugar to him reassuring him that they spent hours queuing for the
sought after commodity "just like everybody else".
The artist adds
that one particular woman approached him saying she was inspired
by the message because she realized that there are many so-called
"obvious" things - like queuing - that she doesn't do.
Maseko said he is not against white people but as an artist he reflects
what ordinary people are saying. Zimbabwe has been experiencing
severe shortages of basic commodities causing thousands of Zimbabweans
to spend many hours in queues with the majority being black people.
The artist also
acknowledges that he himself has been tempted to use toilet walls
to express things he's heard people talking about, mostly political
sentiments that people are generally too afraid to voice.
of different political affiliations often use the same toilet, it
doesn't matter if you support ZANU PF or MDC or any particular party."
He said there isn't a toilet for ZANU PF or MDC. Toilets are democratic
spaces open 24hrs a day to any member of society." I have never
seen anyone writing in a public toilet and no one has seen me writing
in a public toilet", laughed Maseko. It appears that toilets
are one of the few leveling grounds when it comes to Zimbabwean
what has led to Zimbabweans to express themselves on toilet walls?
The Zimbabwean government has created laws such as the Public Order
and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection
of Privacy Act (AIPPA). These laws have made it difficult for the
people of Zimbabwe to express their views openly without fear. The
medium that had become the voice of the voiceless was the independent
daily paper, The Daily News. But this paper was shut down on September
11, 2001. To date the Zimbabwean government has closed other newspapers
namely The Tribune and The Weekly Times.
attained independence the people thought the black government was
the messiah and life was about to change. However, the black government
seems to oppress the very same people it purports to have liberated.
of Owen Maseko's graffiti reinforces this: "Black man is full
Maseko said the people and the events that happen around him inspire
him in his art. One ofthese events is depicted in the painting "One
fool at a time". The artist said the painting is about politicians
who disagree and shout at each other in parliament. Instead of discussing
how to help their constituents, he likened the events in parliament
to people who want to use one public toilet all at the same time.
To make matters worse, the toilet is not working and is overflowing
A former Zimbabwean
opposition MP, Roy Bennett was recently released from jail. He had
been incarcerated because of assaulting a fellow parliamentarian
in a heated debate in parliament. The topic of the debate was Zimbabwe's
controversial land reform programme. The assault took place after
the Minister of Justice and parliamentary affairs Patrick Chinamansa
accused Bennett's ancestors of being thieves.
While an exhibition
like Khululeka is open to many interpretations, Maseko adds that
viewers' interpretations of his paintings are shaped by an individuals
background and understanding of art. The artist said he was pleased
with the public's response to his work because "it's a comforting
feeling to have such an over whelming response - it's a sure sign
that you really managed to get the message across."
Some other issues
that the exhibition focused on included HIV/AIDS, religion, the
plight of street children and women. The exhibition was strengthened
by the participation of a variety of artists such as Alexander Lees,
Sibonisile Ndlovu, Sikhulile Sibanda and Voti Thebe amongst others.
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